The Research Ethics Committee, also known as the researcher’s best friend

Posted on by Leslie Gelling in Ethics, Research

Dr Leslie Gelling

Dr Leslie Gelling

There is a long history of an uneasy relationship between the research ethics committee and researchers but this should no longer be the case.  Researchers and Research Ethics Committees (RECs) want the same thing; high quality research that has real potential to make a difference to people’s lives.

RECs have taken huge strides in the past decade to make ethical review easier and faster for researchers.  Ethical review can no longer take six months, or more, to complete and every application only needs to be reviewed by a single REC using the Integrated Research Application System (IRAS) form.  So why is it that some researchers still persist with such a negative attitude to ethical review?

Much of this negative attitude is based on historical experiences of seeking ethical approval.  Many of those reporting a bad experience are recalling events that happened before the Central Office for Research Ethics Committees (COREC) and, subsequently, the National Research Ethics Service (NRES) turned ethical review in the UK into one of the best in the world.  Ethical review has also been tied up in the general criticism directed at the perceived bureaucracy associated with research permissions where most of the criticism would more accurately be intended for NHS R&D approval processes.

Some criticism of RECs is also the result of misunderstanding by researchers who have not made themselves familiar of what is required to successfully navigate the ethical review process.  Ethical review, especially for complex multi-centre studies, can be complicated but there is considerable advice and support available to researchers, including the NRES helpline, REC Co-ordinators and REC Chairs.

Researchers are required to gain a favourable ethical opinion before they can begin their research so it is unfortunate that it is so often treated as a chore.  Preparing an application for ethical approval should be considered a useful and valuable part of study preparation.

More than ever before, ethical review requires a collaborative effort between RECs and researchers.  This partnership requires that the researchers take ethical review seriously and that RECs treat the work of researchers with appropriate respect and endeavour to undertake review in a timely manner.

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